Beyoncé performs at the VMAs. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images
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Beyoncé’s VMA performance was feminism’s most powerful pop culture moment

More and more high-profile women are embracing the language, ideas, and symbolism of feminism, and that they’re doing it from their places within the power structure, not just from outside of it.

I’m old-ish, and it’s been a while since I’ve watched the Video Music Awards. I’m not saying that the last time I tuned in to the full broadcast was to watch Madonna hump the stage in a synthetic wedding dress, but it might have been within a decade of that.

On Monday morning I woke to images of Beyoncé, striking a dramatic pose – dressed as the world’s most beautiful disco ball – in front of the word “FEMINIST” and felt like an excited kid all over again. Or rather, an excited kid in a far more thrilling pop culture universe than the one I was an actual kid in.

The singer, who will be 33 next week, was performing at the end of the annual awards ceremony, just before receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award. She sang a 16-minute medley, and ten minutes in, the words from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” – which Beyoncé sampled in her 2013 song “Flawless” – began to pop up on the screen while Adichie’s voice said them aloud. 

“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are,” said/read Adichie. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man’.” It culminated with Adichie’s definition of feminist – “The person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” – and the shimmering figure of Beyoncé sliding straight out in front of the word, all lit up.

It was a thing of slick, exhilarating beauty. A thing that was, yes, so trivial and packaged that it really should, I realise, be truly meaningless in this summer of real-world, non-staged, non-shimmery police brutality and restricted rights and horrifying incivility. And yet, despite its superfluity, there it was, the most powerful, and certainly the most highly polished pop-culture message of my lifetime: that attention to gender inequity is alive, revived, and that it is powered today by a broader, more diverse, more youthful and far glossier energy than it has been in the past four decades. 

And no, that doesn’t mean that Beyoncé Knowles is the single face of feminism, or that she stands in any more sufficiently than any of feminism’s other flawed messengers, past or present. But she’s sending a signal, and the fact that that signal is coming from inside the house, the entertainment industry – hell, the fact that Beyoncé herself is arguably the most powerful person in that house – means something that we should all be paying attention to.

These days, as online feminism swells and roils with internal disagreements, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago, there was no online feminism. We forget that not too long ago, a few major women’s organisations were toying with the idea of abandoning the word “feminism”, not because of its complicated history with regard to inclusion and women of colour, but because it turned off too many young women. Not too long ago, the Daily Beast was releasing polling proclaiming feminist “a dirty word”. 

Sunday night, Beyoncé put the word in lights and did not simply use her own voice and body to define it, but turned to another woman’s work as her source. This is a big deal. Having just reread Backlash – the book that brilliantly captured the dismally antifeminist political and pop cultural environment in which I was a young person – I couldn’t help but think that the book’s author, Susan Faludi, must be plotzing. Though she’s always struck me as sort of Eeyoreish, so maybe she, like other critics – both on the left and the right – are underwhelmed by Beyoncé’s feminist credentials: the fact that she presents herself, or allows herself to be presented, in a terrifically feminised, sexualised way; that her career is inherently capitalist in nature; that “Drunk in Love,” performed with her husband Jay-Z, includes the troubling lyric, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” a reference to Ike Turner’s abuse of Tina Turner, one of Beyoncé’s most formidable forerunners.

To this kind of discussion, I say: yes, by all means, argue about sex positivity and objectification and the presentation of female erotic power! Pay attention to the way that those on the right work to dismantle women’s claim to power bit by bit, and to those progressives who validly question the inconsistencies and complicated contexts from which Beyoncé’s messages emerge, just as we should question the inconsistencies and complicated contexts from which other contemporary popular feminist voices, from Lena Dunham’s to Sheryl Sandberg’s to Tina Fey’s, have emerged. Bey’s Sunday night performance took place at an event that last year spat up Robin Thicke spanking a twerking Miley Cyrus; even Adichie’s smart and succinct definition of feminism came from a TED Talk: a TED Talk. In feminism and liberalism, the wry lesson of Some Like It Hot pertains: nobody’s perfect. No individual can competently represent all the people who look to her (or him) to see their own experiences or perspectives reflected. And that’s fine, and fine to point out. 

But in the analysis, let’s not wholly lose what remains exciting: the fact that more high-profile women are embracing the language, ideas, and symbolism of feminism, and that they’re doing it from their places within the power structure, not just from outside of it. It’s that unusual positioning that makes them problematic, of course – how can multi-millionaire businesswoman and performers adequately give voice to the inequities faced by women around the world? But it is also symptomatic of something unprecedented, the still-too-few but ever-more-numerous women climbing high within structures that have always been just for boys, and refusing to part with the outside identities that would have barred them from those structures just decades earlier.

On MTV’s news site, the post-VMA headline was “Beyoncé’s 2014 VMA Performance: Fearless, Feminist, Flawless, Family Time”. In my day, those words would never, ever have been strung together. 

So yeah, it’s manufactured stage-craft and she’s rich and they’re corporate, but in a business in which performance is the business, this one was broadcast to twelve million adoring fans. And it showed a woman of colour as a sexually confident, high-octane talent and as a powerful business woman, as an adoring mother and an equal partner (“don’t think I’m just his little wife”) to a man who called her “the greatest living entertainer” as he was handing her her little spaceman statuette and carrying their kid. 

That this is what a woman looks like when she defines herself as a feminist in 2014 tells us that its steadily-published obituaries to the contrary, the women’s movement is not only thriving, but expanding. Bow down. 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records, from Janelle Monáe, Kelis, Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. But he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.